Brazil are everyone's second team, we are told. Well, after watching Nike's latest advert, Barney Ronay suddenly feels a lot less goodwill towards a corporate steamroller masquerading as the people's champions

What kind of person could possibly have a problem with the “beautiful game”? The good old joga bonita, with its smiling children, Brazilian superstars, tippety-tappety freestyle moves and remixed samba rhythms. Not to mention an entire range of polyester sportswear and accompanying DVD and soundtrack album. What kind of fiend, what kind of monster, could possibly feel a sense of queasiness at being told by the World Footballer of the Year, a man with a “brand value” of €47 million per annum, that we all need to stop being such corporate dupes and get with the kids on the street who are keeping it real? OK, Ronaldinho, I give in. I’ll take a gross of cap-sleeved soccer shirts and a dozen pairs of Air Zoom 90 boots. Just, please, no more back-flicks.

Nike’s recent joga bonita advertising campaign represents a new high-water mark in football marketing double-speak. The whole thing is based around the idea that a band of footballing renegades, led by Eric Cantona, are staging a series of daring guerrilla raids on mainstream TV channels, in order to broadcast pirate videos promoting their revolutionary soccer ideology and the propagation of the People’s Republic Of Keepy-Uppy And Backheel. The most obvious sticking point here – the depiction of Nike, not to mention the all-conquering megalith of Brazilian football, as some kind of counter-cultural force – is breathtakingly disingenuous. The world’s largest sporting goods manufacturer and the current world champions: when it comes to plucky underdogs sailing beneath the corporate radar, they‘re not exactly Ewoks. More Darth Vader and the imperial fleet.

By any standard Brazilian football – and what is being portrayed as Brazilian style – is already winning. They have been for years. These days Brazil are the Tesco of football, sporting imperialists camped in every outpost from Tunis to Moscow. The Champions League is shot through with Brazils. This isn’t a coincidence. FIFA’s last 15 years of tinkering with the laws of the game has created an environment where the skilful, ball-playing footballer can flourish free of the more rugged, traditionally northern European attentions that might once have levelled the playing field. If Nike really wanted to present an image of football’s underground invading the mainstream they should have commissioned an ad featuring Terry Hurlock and Peter Reid taking over a broadcast of the Champions League final in order to screen grainy home-made videos of League Two centre-halfs kicking each other up in the air.

Is it even particularly bonita, this version of the poor, beleaguered joga? Ronaldinho performing a five-minute solo tap-dance before balancing the ball on his left nostril and donkey-kicking one in from three yards will only take you so far. It brings to mind those pictures of grimacing Thai teenagers completing their ten millionth keep-up for the Guinness Book of Records then collapsing in a heap. Not to mention the fact that this kind of celebrity fetishism promotes a version of the game that is ultimately all about watching rather than taking part. The virtuoso performs his tricks. We, the less extravagantly bonita, simply gawp and then buy the T-shirt. You get the feeling the American sportswear market might have something to do with it: the repackaging of the game as a cross-cultural mixture of break-dancing, basketball and hacky sack. This is football for people who don’t understand football. Maybe soccer’s not so sissy-ass after all. Let’s go buy one of them Ronaldinho soccer uniforms.

There is more than just marketing at work here. Big clubs like the idea of the joga bonita too – and so of course do TV companies. The kind of action the crowd inside a ground might enjoy – a really good heavy tackle for example – just doesn’t come across on TV. It’s not going to keep the casual channel-surfer’s finger away from his remote. He wants easy thrills: the unimpeded dribble, the triple step-over by the bloke he recognises from the samba-disco-soccer advert. And of course clubs need star players like never before. Spending £50m on a new striker has never been any guarantee of success – although the watering down of the game’s physical element has certainly smoothed the way – but these days it is a guarantee of a secondary income stream, a renewed merchandising kudos.

It is tempting to describe the joga bonita campaign as something along the lines of football having its soul sold back to it for the price of a £49.99 T-shirt. But let’s not forget where the phrase “the beautiful game” first appeared. It’s from Pelé’s autobiography. Not from the mouths of the Corinthian ragamuffins of some holy favela, but from the face of MasterCard and Pepsi, the most lucrative personage in football history and a player whose extravagant playing skills were always complemented by his corporate hard-headedness. The beautiful game is pretty much the tagline for Pelé’s global brand. And now somebody else is muscling in trying to squeeze a few more bucks out of it. He’s probably already talked to his lawyer.

From WSC 233 July 2006. What was happening this month

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